Speaking of Music, Identity & Purpose at Sisters 4 Sisters

by - 3:58 PM

I had the privilege of being invited by Mina Sharifi – the founder of a mentoring program for young women called Sisters 4 Sisters Afghanistan – to speak to a group of girls between the age of 15-24. It is a program that is run by an organization called PARSA. As we entered the PARSA compound, I immediately felt at peace. It was full of trees and gardens. I found out that they have a scouts’ program there for boys and girls. I was greeted by Nargis, the psychosocial manager at PARSA. She was going to interpret for me. As the girls were all seated in the room on couches, I sat at the front and introduced myself as Nargis translated for me throughout. This is a summary of what I recollect of my sharing:

"My name is Janielle. I was born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 24 years ago. When I was 15, my family – my dad, mom and two younger sisters – moved to the city of Melbourne, in Australia. I started learning music when I was 7. My dad had to work very hard to send me for music lessons. But I’ll never forget the two things that my parents told me as they raised me up in a different way from others around me:

1.     Music is something that nobody can take away from you.
2.    Music is a gift from God – you can give it to others no matter where you are and it is priceless."

I encouraged them to think about these two questions and later asked them to discuss it so they can share with the class:

1.     What is something you have – that is part of you, that is God-given – that nobody can take away from you?
2.    What is something you can do, learn or develop – like a passion or interest – that you can give to others, to serve your society, to help people, that is priceless?

"When you first start learning something new – like riding a bike or reading and writing – it is always difficult. It was the same for me when I first learned the piano. Sometimes I didn’t know the true meaning of music and the purpose of learning the piano. But the turning point for me came when I was about 13 years old. I discovered that I could write my own music and I started to write my own songs. That discovery of my own potential to be creative made me change the way I did music. I became more motivated and I started practicing 3 hours and more each day. There’s something powerful about discovering that you can make something that is yours. That becomes a natural motivator and driver for you to pursue something!"

I told them about the difficulties I faced as a young girl adjusting to a new life in Australia and how I felt inferior to the other white people who seemed more beautiful or smart. But then I reminded them of the two questions and said that when we think about the answers to these questions, we will no longer be afraid. Even if we are afraid, the answer to those questions will sustain us and give us courage to press forward.

Then I told them the short story of how I ended up in Afghanistan:

"When I was 17, I loved reading books and I started reading about Afghanistan. There was a book about an Afghan woman who started a school for girls during the Taliban times. Another book was about Malalai Joya, a famous woman activist in Afghanistan. Back then, I used to think that one day I would love to go to Afghanistan and do something there. But you know, at that time, I was just a student. I didn’t even know if I was going to go to university, or if I’ll find a job in the future. Afghanistan was just a distant dream"

I then told them how I went on to study at the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School, a specialist music school – and how I continued studying music at university in the Melbourne Conservatorium. 

"But during those years, I told myself that if I can’t yet go to a place like Afghanistan, I will first go to other places where I can bring music and help people. I started to earn some money teaching piano – with the money I saved, I went on yearly 3-month trips to Africa. One of the countries I went to is called Rwanda. There are also many books written about this country too. But it is known mainly because of the genocide that happened in 1994. There are 2 major tribes in Rwanda and one of the tribes killed almost 1 million of the other tribe in just 3 months. So when I went there, I saw a lot of unspoken pain and challenges in the people. Let me share with you one of the moments I had in Rwanda that showed me the power of music to bring healing to people.

I was at a sewing or tailoring center for women. Those women faced a lot of hardships because of the trauma from the genocide. Many had lost husbands, brothers, uncles, fathers and whole families. Some had to resort to terrible ways to survive, like begging or prostitution. But now they were here at this center to learn how to tailor. I spent some time with them sharing songs and singing with them. The next day, something remarkable had happened. Even before I had gone into the center, as I was walking to it, I could hear the women singing altogether. They had started without me! Before this, it’s like they were a bird in a cage with the cage-door open, but they couldn’t fly out or didn’t know that the door was open. Now, they have realized that the door is indeed open and they have the wings to fly out!

After that moment and many other encounters in Africa where I was bringing music to villages and schools, I knew that I was going to spend the rest of my life teaching and bringing music to difficult places where I need to share the gift of music and the inner healing it can bring, especially to those in places of conflict and trauma."

"Now, let me tell you how I ended up here in Afghanistan. In January this year, I found out about the Afghanistan National Institute of Music by watching a film documentary about the it called Dr. Sarmast’s Music School. I cried the whole way watching it. After that I asked myself, “What am I going to do about this? Can I just sit here and continue my life in Australia?” So I decided, no, I needed to do something. I found ANIM’s website and emailed Dr. Sarmast straightaway, telling him that I love the work he is doing in Afghanistan and I believe in the power of music to bring transformation as I’ve also done similar things in Africa. I told him that if in the future he’s ever in need of a piano or music teacher, he can contact me.

Now, I’m someone who has a strong faith in God, so I prayed so hard to God that He would open a door for me in Afghanistan and that something unusual will happen so I could come. And guess what? Three days later, I received an email from Dr. Sarmast thanking me for getting in touch and guess what, the craziest thing had happened. He said that two days after my email to him, his current piano teacher who has taught at ANIM for 2 years, has suddenly told him that she needs to leave Afghanistan in February! So Dr. Sarmast told me that if I wanted, I could take her place and come in April!

Now here I am, teaching music in the only music school in Afghanistan. So, after you have heard a little bit about my journey, I think you can understand how happy I am to be here with you today. Going back to what I asked earlier, I’d like you girls to take 5 minutes to discuss those two questions and then we’ll have a time of sharing."

During that discussion time, I had a quick chat with Nargis to ask about her involvement at PARSA and also ask for her response to my questions. She said it’s a complicated question, but one that she’s already in the process of answering. She has a desire to help children and women. Especially in Afghanistan, these two groups of people are the most vulnerable and neglected. So she has started out by working with PARSA the past year. Before that she was working in security, and studying English Literature at Kabul University.

Nargis told me she’s worked here for 1 year, and she’s also working on another project called ‘Healthy Professional Women of Afghanistan’ funded by the Women In Economy USAID initiative. This information astounded me as she told me what it’s about. There are currently 54 women’s groups around Afghanistan with 20 women in each group plus a local facilitator. Between 800-1000 women attend these weekly groups in places like Helmand, Herat, Kandahar, and even some Taliban controlled areas of Afghanistan where it is impossible to access. Nargis is part of training and mentoring the facilitators. Those who are in inaccessible areas are monitored via phone calls.

The aim of the project is to empower local women as they meet together to discuss the problems they face in the community – in work, family, and other areas. The role of each woman is to help the group find solutions to the issues that they encounter and share through this weekly meeting. I told Nargis that she must tell me more about it.

Soon the girls shared their responses to the two questions and I was so very impressed by them. Razia*, a 24 year-old, said she loves to cook. 4 years ago when she first came to PARSA, she couldn’t even chop an onion, but now she’s teaching 8 girls how to cook. Not only that, she works as a cleaner and cooks at PARSA, where on Fridays they have a shared brunch meal altogether. The other thing she is eager to learn is music. But she was a bit worried about the fact that she has never been to school and is illiterate. She shyly asked Nargis to translate to ask me if she has a chance of learning music since she cannot read or write! I responded: Of course you can! One thing I have experienced from teaching music in many places and in Africa, where there are many who didn’t get the chance for a proper schooling, is that music is a like a language of sounds that anyone can and should learn. Just like anything else, it requires practice and perseverance – if you have those two qualities, you can learn music most definitely!
Nazia* then shared that she’s studying her Bachelor in Business Administration, but she has an interest in psycho-social work and helping people. She hopes to find work in this area when she finishes her degree. I told her that I also have an interest in psychology, and in a country like Afghanistan, we need more people like her!

Dunia* shared that she loves sport and likes to play volleyball. I marveled that there was such a thing going on. I’m sure not many girls in Afghanistan can play volleyball!

Gulalai* had a soft-spoken voice and sweetly shared that she would like to help people and the way she will do it is to study hard to become a doctor.

Meena* shared that she wants to become a teacher, because every person, whether they are a doctor or engineer or even the president, has once had a teacher to start them off in life. In that way, she wants to teach and influence her students.

Samia*, a very articulate and confident young lady, shared that she wants to become a politician – like Indira Gandhi – and she wants to be a writer as well as start an organization in the future to help people in challenging conflict zones in Africa or places like Syria.

Farah* shared that in Afghanistan, it is difficult for women to be a police officer. If they are, they will be ridiculed and face a lot of opposition. She wants to be a part of breaking that stigma and to become a policewoman.

I was so amazed by all that they shared and encouraged them by saying that this room is full of a future chef, psychologist, sports coach, doctor, teacher, politician-writer and policewoman! I then shared with them The Way Back, a song I wrote about sisters finding their way home together. I snapped my fingers and slapped my thighs to make a rhythm for them to follow as I started singing. I could see them trying to follow the beat, and their faces lighting up as I sang. Nargis had tears in her eyes.

After that, Samia said that they would like to sing me an English song they know. They started singing “You Are My Sunshine”. It was a little out of tune, and I imagined the possibility of teaching them singing! After that we took group photos and Nargis said they were so honoured to have me. They loved me and the music I shared with them. 

I pitched the idea to them that I could come back another time to do a music and songwriting workshop, and we’d have loads of fun sharing our ideas. They had never had such a session before. All of them enthusiastically agreed! I have a warm feeling that I will get to know them better in the coming days.

*Not their real names.

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